Rudolph P. Byrd
“I find that looking backward over three- score years does not lessen my enthusiasm in looking forward,” writes James Weldon Johnson in the final paragraphs of his autobiography, Along This Way
. “What I have done appears as very little when I consider all that the will to do set me as a task, and what I have written quite dwarfed alongside my aspirations; but life has been a stirring enterprise with me, and still is; for the willingness is not yet over and the dreams are not yet dead.”
The Modern Library’s Essential Writings of James Weldon Johnson
spans three- score years of Johnson’s richly lived life. Through the selection of representative works arranged in chronological order, this volume seeks to capture the depth and range of his artistic, cultural, and political interests. Notwithstanding his own modest estimation of his corpus, the volume is a record of Johnson’s impressive achievements in several modes of expression, as well as convincing evidence that for him life remained a “stirring enterprise.”
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1871. His education as a race man, in his case, as a cosmopolite and the unafraid advocate of African America, began in his boyhood. From his mother, Helen Louise Dillet, born in 1842 in Nassau, Bahamas, and reared in New York, Johnson developed a deep appreciation for poetry and music. “She was my first teacher,” he recalls, “and began my lessons in reading before ever I went to school.” Most evenings his mother would read to James and to Rosamond, his younger brother, such classics as David Copperfield. This initiation into the world of letters nurtured Johnson’s imagination and provided him with an almost tangible sense of the existence of dimensions beyond his present dimension. As his mother was “the first colored woman public school teacher in Florida,” she was a pioneering figure in a profession that he would join in later years. Along with providing her son with a model of leadership through education, Helen Louise Dillet was also a “nonconformist and a rebel” who never accepted the operations of the color line. Doubtless, his mother’s example of erudition and resistance were extremely important to Johnson as he developed into manhood.
From his father, James Johnson, born a freeman in 1830 in Richmond, Virginia, Johnson developed a love of reading. James Johnson gave his first- born a library comprised of children’s literature, which he kept until his death. As the headwaiter of Jacksonville’s St. James Hotel, “the most famous and the most fashionable of all the Florida resort hotels,” the father introduced his son to the glamorous and mannered world of society. As Johnson senior possessed “a working knowledge of the Spanish language,” which aided him in the execution of his duties at the St. James Hotel, the younger Johnson soon developed an appreciation for foreign languages and, later in life, fluency in Spanish. His father’s ability to negotiate successfully a world of culture bearing the imprint of a foreign language deeply impressed Johnson. As a consequence, reading and writing were taken up as desirable pursuits, along with the study of foreign languages and the race rituals of Victorian society.
Beyond the home, there were certain important lessons about culture and race that Johnson imbibed as a member of a self- conscious African American community in an increasingly segregated society. As a boy in Jacksonville in the late nineteenth century, he recalls that his first awareness of difference was derived from a particular kind of “religious experience [which] preceded any experiences of race.” Johnson is alluding to his journey as a Methodist to the mourner’s bench at the age of nine and the debate that this state of being “consecrated to God” generated within his family. As an adolescent, Johnson came to the conclusion that he was not a Christian but rather an agnostic.
As race emerged as a factor in his existence, Johnson writes that his “early impressions constituted what might be called an unconscious race- superiority complex. All the most interesting things that came under my observation were being done by colored men.” There were many things that Johnson would have learned earlier if he had not been, as he observes, “restricted in play” by his parents. Initiated by degrees into what his colleague and friend W.E.B. Du Bois would poetically term “the veil” or the color line, Johnson would become more cognizant of race during his studies at Atlanta University Preparatory Division, which he entered at the age of sixteen, and later as a student at Atlanta University. “Here was a deepening, but narrowing experience; an experience so narrowing that the inner problem of a Negro in America becomes that of not allowing it to choke and suffocate him. I am glad,” writes Johnson of his years at Atlanta University, “that this fuller impact of the situation came to me as late as it did, when my apprehension of it could be more or less objective. As an American Negro, I consider the most fortunate thing in my whole life to be the fact that through childhood I was reared free from undue fear of or esteem for white people as a race. . . .” Johnson came of age before the formalization of separate but equal in the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896. In his most “plastic years” there emerges, in incremental fashion and through the lens of a community conscious of its value, an awareness in Johnson of the racially defined patterns that would over time congeal into the American system of apartheid against which he would valiantly do battle for most of his adult life.
Along with his parents and the community, which functioned as buffers against the “race prejudice [which] might have become a part of [ Johnson’s] subconscious as well as of [his] conscious self,” Dr. T. O. Summers exercised a decisive influence upon Johnson’s development. According to Johnson, Summers was “the outstanding surgeon in Florida,” and a member of Jacksonville’s white elite. Through a series of unexpected turns Summers hired Johnson as an assistant in the reception room of his medical offices in Jacksonville. At the time of their first meeting, Johnson was approximately seventeen or eighteen years old, yet he knew that he “had made contact with one of those mysterious forces that play close around us or flash to us across the void from another orbit.” In Summers, Johnson came “into close touch with a man of great culture. He was, moreover, a cosmopolite.” Well traveled and fluent in several languages, Summers initiated a relationship with Johnson that proceeded “on a high level,” and, according to Johnson, “ ‘race’ never showed its head. He neither condescended nor patronized; in fact, he treated me as an intellectual equal.” Summers welcomed Johnson into his library, exposing the young man to works by Montaigne and Thomas Paine, along with erotica by Boccaccio and Balzac. Here Johnson discovered a body of literature that was not available in the library of Atlanta University. Summers also gave Johnson “the first worthwhile criticism and encouragement [he] had yet received” of his poetry. Johnson’s employment with Summers ended when the former returned to Atlanta University in the fall to resume his studies. He recalls that “I was filled with regret at parting from Dr. Summers. The regret was mutual. He had formed a strong affection for me which he did not hide. I had made him my model of all that a man and a gentleman should be.” Johnson writes that he left Summers “with an older ambition clarified, strengthened, and brought into some shape—the ambition to write.” When the surgeon relocated with his family to another region of the country, they corresponded for “several years. Then one day I was shocked to learn that Dr. Summers had committed suicide. I was deeply grieved, for I had lost an understanding friend, one who was, in many ways, a kindred spirit.” Johnson memorialized Summers in his novel The Autobiography of an Ex- Coloured Man
for there the surgeon appears as the protagonist’s worldly and world weary patron who commits suicide.
Copyright © 2008 by James Weldon Johnson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.